Skin and Bones

NOTICE: S&B is taking a break. We will be back with a revamp mid 2019! Unravelling the Illegal and controversial industry that threatens global biodiversity.

Who knew that manta rays held the secret to so many ailments in their gill plates? Well certainly not the Traditional Chinese Medicinal Practitioners from hundreds of years ago. Instead this recent surge in demand is due to clever product marketing by Chinese retailers, falsely "reviving" a remedy which is non-existent in the traditional literature.  

These giant surface feeders, once simply released if accidentally netted as bycatch, are now being harpooned and plundered from the ocean, and because of their slow life history strategy; a long life expectancy, high age of maturity and low reproductive rates (typically one pup per litter) any active targeting of this species can cause these fisheries to collapse. 


  • GILL PLATES -  made into Soup (Peng Yu Sai) for Traditional medicine, to improve breast milk quality, detoxify the blood, cure cancer and chicken pox, and further heath claims. 


Giant Manta Ray
Manta birostris

Reef Manta Ray
Manta alfredi

Drid Manta gills, Credit: Paul Hilton

Once avoided for its low quality, 'sandy' meat, Manta rays have been targeted across the coastlines of Asia, Africa and South America. Surprisingly it is just one South Central Chinese City, Guangzhou, that is responsible for 99% of Manta gill consumption. The irony is, that although Peng Yu Sai (made of gill plates, ginseng and dried pipefish) is promoted as a detoxifier, toxicology reports show that consumption could have directly the opposite effect. Dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead were found in all samples tested in a report from wildlife organization WildAid, and in greater quantities than those permissible by the pharmacopoeia of China. Worryingly, consumers are completely unaware of this significant public health risk, which is particularly alarming when you consider it is commonly marketed to nursing mothers. 

Credit: Elias Levy

It is easy to see why fishermen would be easily swayed to hunt these graceful creatures, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to fish other desirable species, such as tuna and billfish, which are also depleted from the seas.  Each kilo of gill is worth 100 times more than each kilo of meat, and as a result carcasses are left to decay on the beaches where they are caught, it is a totally unsustainable harvest. Still the demand is there, and increasing, mainstream media and on-line marketing of Peng Yu Sai has reached a broader demographic, and the public are urged to consume regularly for an 'overall improved immune system and better all around health'. From 2010 to 2013 supply grew by 168%, with 147'000 mobulids killed for supply in 2013. 

Conservation organizations are now working with the Chinese government and tradition medicinal practitioners to educate consumers and promote a national ban on Manta products.

As of 2011 Mantas are protected from being fished in international waters by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and in 2013, a major victory and the recognition of conservation of these species occurred when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reviewed trade and placed all Manta spp on Appendix II.  Not illegal, but international trade is closely controlled, and suppliers require an export or re-export permit to ship abroad. 

Countries that hold laws and legislation nationally to stop unsustainable exploitation of Mantas include: New Zealand (1953), the Maldives (1995), the Philippines (1998, overtuned and then reinstated in 2002), Mexico (2007), Hawaii in the U.S. (2009), Ecuador (2010), Indonesia (2014) and the most recent fishing ban is crucial as it comes from the country with the world largest Manta population, Peru.  The national legislation was put in place on the 31st of December 2015 and the regulation also mandates that all Mantas caught as bycatch be immediately released back into the ocean.

The Indonesian ban in 2014 - which banned both fishing and exporting from the biggest manta ray sanctuary on Earth, the 6 million sq kilometer Indonesian exclusive economic zone - came into action because, much like elephants, Manta rays are worth far more alive than dead. Economically a single manta ray is worth $2 million over its lifetime in revenue from tourism, whereas in a fish market it can only be bought for $40 to $200.

However, bans can be problematic, fishing and exploitation of these creatures still occurs and like other wildlife derivatives illegal trade is laundered through legal trade with the help of forged permits and corruption. 

Mobula Ray, close relative of the manta ray (with less protection) harvested for its gills Credit: Paul Hilton 

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